Green lightning: Is it real, and what does it mean?

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Green lightning is a rare weather phenomenon that some people have been lucky enough to witness. It’s almost the same as lightning, except its color is an eerie green. There’s a simple theory behind it, as well as some misconceptions.

Let’s dive right in!

Real green lightning

Source: National Geographic

The only time green lightning has actually been photographed was when the Chaiten volcano in Chile erupted, spewing a cloud of ash into the sky.

Volcanic ash commonly has lightning bolts in it, a phenomenon known as volcanic lightning – except this time, the plume of ash had an eerie green lightning bolt in.

This remarkable photograph was captured by Carlos Gutierrez.

Arthur Few, a scientist from Rice University seems to have solved the question of why green lightning was only seen here and not elsewhere.

Is green lightning common?

According to Arthur Few, green lightning is actually far more common than we realize. We just don’t see it all the time because it usually happens inside the cloud rather than outside.

The green lightning is a streamer, or a channel of positively charged molecules that is attracted to an area of negatively charged molecules. When the two channels meet, the circuit is completed and energy is discharged.

As for the green color, that’s most likely due to oxygen molecules being supercharged by the energy from the bolt, then losing the extra energy.

As lightning jumps from one area of a cloud to the other, there are probably plenty of streaks of green lightning – but since the ice crystals that are the reason for the static charge buildup are inside the cloud, we don’t see the bolt of lightning.

It was visible in the ash cloud because the ash particles(which collide and generate static charge) are on the outside of that cloud.

Arthur Few suggests that if we were able to see inside of clouds, we may be able to see green lightning more often.

Things that seem like green lightning

Perhaps not qualifying exactly as green lightning, a related phenomenon is a green flash that sometimes occurs during severe weather. This is actually known as a power arc.

A power arc is when a high voltage power line is short circuited, resulting in an arc of electricity. This arc only lasts a few seconds, since most power lines have some sort of safety mechanism built in to mitigate damage from these short circuits.

These shorts are incredibly powerful and bright, and can involve tens of thousands of amperes. The arcs can be blue, green, turquoise, and even orange – which is why many people report seeing “the sky turn green”.

Often this short knocks out power, so a green flash is also associated with a loss of power in that area.

The arcs are sometimes referred to as “exploding transformers”, though transformers are not always responsible. An arc can be caused by any simple short circuit, whether the wind causes to power lines to touch, a wet branch bridged two lines, or a squirrel was unfortunate enough to walk across and bridge the circuit.

If this phenomenon is caused by lightning, it is known as a “flashover”. Flashovers are when lightning causes bridging between two power lines or a well grounded object, resulting in a very bright – sometimes as much so as lightning – flash of light coming from the ground and going up.

Green skies and tornados

There seems to be some folklore in tornado-prone areas that a green sky is indicative of a tornado.

This seems to be more of correlation than causation!

The hues we observe in the sky are due to the way white light from the sun is scattered throughout the atmosphere. On a typical, clear day, the violet and blue spectrum is scattered the most, which is why we observe the sky to be blue.

The light from the sun during sunrise or sunset has to travel a much greater distance through the atmosphere, so even more spectra are scattered, leaving us to perceive the last colors of the rainbow: yellow, orange, and if it’s really hazy, red.

Researchers have found that the sky can turn green during thunderstorms if the storm cloud is aligned with a setting or rising sun, and you’re at the right angle to observe it.

It simply influences the way the light scatters, that’s all.

As for green skies meaning tornados, well, green skies usually indicate a large, tall thundercloud, and those are commonly associated with tornados and hail.

Does a green sky mean a twister is definitely headed your way? No. But are you going to be in for some stormy weather? Quite possibly!

Want to learn more about volcanoes and lightning?

Stay safe during severe weather:

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86 Comments

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  2. I literally just saw a streamer strike on my driveway. this was a terrifying moment for me because i have never seen this until Today.

  3. Great to see and answer to a question is literally a type away. Thank you for sharing your wisdom on this platform and doing this study previously. Currently in Bossier City Louisiana and we’ve got some weather change. Keep up the great work.

  4. Green clouds with lightening last night in Dallas. We were watching from the back patio … literally just blocks north of the tornado (we had no idea the tornado was so close.)

    • Hi Lori. I’m glad you’re OK. I’m in the Dallas area too, and we were so nervous. I had my kids stayed in the downstairs bathroom for a while. The tornado sirens went off most of the night.

      • I actually captured a sighting of this on video a couple months ago during a tornado warning in the dfw area. Of course I was thinking it was bizarre and although it was quite a few ways into the skyline it lasted long enough to take a video, however I wonder if it was an arc or actual green lighting. Super cool nonetheless

  5. Twice during a thunder storm i have seen green balls of energy. Since this was in North West Kansas, there was no volcanic activity. I saw both of them high in the clouds and nowhere near an electrical line or transformer. Both were many years ago and they were during different storms.

  6. I saw a green clouds with a green lightening flash last night at around midnight.I was with my Uber guy just outside my fence,I was so scared coz av never seen such a thing in my entire life.I asked the Uber guy if he had seen wat happened n he told me he saw it and he was also scared.after paying the Uber bills I open the gate ran to my house n closed the door.I was so so scared

  7. Hi, the Green lightning: Is it real, and what does it mean? post it is extraordinary, I recommend it.

  8. You still didn’t tell the danger ranking of green coloured lightning?
    Is it hotter than purple?
    I wonder…..

    • The white lightning is the hottest lightning and the rarest lightning ever seen. But the green lightning is likely similar to black lightning but not strong as black lightning.

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  11. I was lucky enough to see three green lightning strikes within 10 minutes. This occurred
    around 1015 pm near Florence SC as I was driving down I-95 south on Friday August 7 2020. This was my first experience seeing this and I am relieved that others have seen this before. What a bizarre sight. I am an amateur photographer and have taken many shots of lightning strikes with my Nikon D-90 SLR. Where was my camera when I needed it ? The storm clouds literally light up like a bright green LED would. At least I know now I was not imagining this. The thunderstorms continued for almost an hour more but I never saw any more green illuminated clouds. I have never experienced this before and I am 65 years old.

  12. Dear Tom, Thank you for this article. This might partially answer a question I’ve had since about 1988. That year, there was a hurricane passing close to my home in Clearwater, Florida. Late at night, I went outside and looked straight up. The clouds parted above me and it seemed I was looking right into the heart of the clouds. Some of the lightning flashes were teal green and some were magenta. The phenomenon went on for as long as I stared up into the cloud. I’ve never been able to find out what was happening exactly. Can you explain?

  13. Thank u for the great information. I’m in south west Florida and was watching storm coming in tonite. I watched one area in sky where much lightning was continuing in exact same location. Than I SAW IT A COUPLE OF GREEN LIGHTNING BOLTS IVE NEVER SEEN IN MY LIFE. MOST BEAUTIFUL BUT EERIE. WISH I HAD CAMERA SET UP.

  14. I have been storm chasing, or more appropriately, storm tracking for 50 years (since 1970). I have at least 3 really clear shots of green lightning from thunderstorms in Texas. A couple are cloud-to-cloud, but my best best is a cloud-to-ground strike that almost exactly mimics a normally lit cloud-to-ground strike beside it. So I disagree with the statement that, “the only time green lightning has actually been photographed is when the Chiaten volcano in Chile erupted”.
    I never show my images unsolicited. But, believe me when I say my images are worth viewing. I have displayed them in galleries in Texas.
    Some of my weather images can viewed on the website smartshoot.com/al-key/weather. But my rare stuff like green lightning, or the mile-wide Moore tornado I keep protected.

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  16. I’m afraid it’s a lens reflex artifact: the shapes of the green and normal lightning channels are identical. It is easy to demonstrate by overlaying the image on itself rotated 180 degrees.
    Alas, not a real green lightning…

  17. I’m in Buffalo, NY and I literally just saw the sky turn green on my drive home about 10 minutes ago. I was on the phone with my boyfriend, who was also driving home, and he saw it too. It’s very windy here, like 60mph gusts, and raining so I’m not surprised. But that’s the first I’ve seen or heard of green lightning, super cool!

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  21. We had a blizzard in Cheyenne WY last night and people all over the city saw the green lightning at 4:00 AM. Could the ice crystals in the blizzard have caused this?

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  50. I was almost struck by a green lightning bolt while leaving work one day in Syracuse NY. DEFINITELY was lightning. Was probably in late 1990’s very early – maybe first snowfall of the year.
    I froze – like stood still- for a minute and then proceeded to slowly walk down the sidewalk on a freshly fallen dusting of snow about 30 meters to the parking lot. I remember because I looked back to see how many footsteps I took. That way I could tell how many times I said “Oh my God”. Every footstep got one. Not bad for someone whose not very religious.

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  53. I saw tonight driving home, green lighting. It only lit up a rectangle sized, but I wasn’t saying anything, i half way expected the car in front of me to just start floating up in the air. Then my daughter, who’s 10yrs old says “Mom did you see the green in the sky?’ I thought first before answering, finally I said “Yes”. Never seen that before, but I’m glad to know what I’ve read on it, and that it’s not aliens, coming our way, lmao..

  54. I saw green lightning during a very unusual snowstorm roughly 30 years ago. My brother and I were walking from work to the restaurant where the staff Christmas party was held, roughly one mile from work. The snow started just as we left. There was no snow on the ground at the beginning of our trek, but the snowfall was so heavy that we were struggling through snow halfway up to our knees by the time we reached the restaurant just fifteen minutes later. The two of us looked like cartoon characters with piles of snow accumulated on our hats and shoulders. To top things off, it was a thundersnow. The snow was too heavy for me to see actual bolts of lightning, but the flashes were all green! I had to stop a few times to be certain I wasn’t just seeing the reflections of traffic lights in the heavy snowfall, but it wasn’t traffic lights. It was lightning. (unless traffic lights can light up the entire sky, and are followed by thunder)
    That was the only time I have ever experienced green lightning.

  55. Lightning is cool now I know all about the green lightning it was a lot of whiteing but I enjoyed it it helps me speak more and read.I like to look at lightning it is so cool and alsome.

  56. There is this monster called Astalos in Monster Hunter Rise and he shoots green lightning

  57. l… l. last night……….. I saw green lightning, I was scared and tried to do research. It was a darkish green. I am wondering if it’s rarer than lightning snow. I looked out the window, my junior high football night got canceled. I look out the window And see a big, bright flash of green. I sat there for a second, stunned. It was the entire sky, too. I ran into my room, wondering if anyone else saw that crazy phenomenon. I sat down to watch TV to calm myself, and to think that I saw what was “A rare weather phenomenon that some people have been lucky enough to witness.” The article helped me and calmed me down this morning.

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